- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

At Camden Yards, it’s noticeable: Attendance at Baltimore Orioles games has declined more than 10 percent this season.

Down the road at RFK Stadium, it’s even more obvious. The crowds at Washington Nationals games are nearly 20 percent smaller than they were at the same time last season.

The average Orioles crowd through Sunday has been 25,500 this season, a decline of more than 3,000 at the same point in 2005. The struggling Nationals are averaging about 25,000, down from more than 30,000 last season. In both cities, teams have recorded record-low crowds, even for games against contending clubs.

The Orioles last night opened a three-game series against the division rival Boston Red Sox that could help change that. The Nationals can look for relief to a three-game series against the regional rival Orioles that opens Friday.

Some blame the unusually cool temperatures this month for keeping fans away. Others blame the success of the Wizards in the NBA playoffs. Some even blame the George Mason men’s basketball team and their Final Four run for stealing the attention of sports fans in early April.

For the Nationals, a mild attendance drop was expected after big crowds during the team’s first year in Washington. But poor play, coupled with a growing dissatisfaction with RFK Stadium as a venue, has turned off many fans. A lengthy offseason dispute between Major League Baseball and the city over a stadium lease and construction agreement also hurt the club. Season tickets sales are down to about 16,000, compared to about 22,000 last season.

“I’m aware we have hurdles,” said Stan Kasten, who soon will take over as team president. “We have them in numerous areas, and I’m not going to minimize our tasks. But we’re not wasting any time. As soon as possible is our motto.”

There have been increasing complaints about slow and unfriendly concession service at RFK, and many fans continue to rail against the stadium’s play-by-play announcer and sound system. Members of the Lerner family, who recently were named as new owners of the Nationals, said they plan to address these issues and begin marketing the team as soon as they take control next month.

“What it will take is fans coming back and telling their friends, ‘I had a great time,’” said Ian Koski, who runs Nationalspride.com and admits he has turned down several chances to attend games. “It’s going to take a better experience both on the field and in the stadium. And that’s what the new owner can do — investing money in making the experience better. And I hope they get on this soon because people are not going to wait for the new stadium.”

Meanwhile, nearly half of all Nationals fans find themselves unable to watch the team’s games because of a dispute between Comcast and the Baltimore Orioles that has led Comcast to refuse to carry the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

“They really need to get this situation with Comcast sorted out,” said Maury Brown, who chairs a committee on the business of baseball for the Society of American Baseball Research. “The whole dispute has left 1.3 million people unable to watch the team.”

The Nationals have not helped matters with their performance. They began the season with just two wins in their first 11 games and have been swept in three of their home series.

Their schedule also has worked against them. The Nationals have had just five home series, including two against the last-place Marlins and Pirates.

But there is reason to believe attendance will improve for the Nationals. The upcoming games against the Orioles are expected to draw well and are followed by seven games against the Astros and Dodgers, teams with some of the best road attendance numbers. June series include games against the Yankees and division rival and red-hot Phillies.

In Baltimore, the sluggish attendance clearly has less to do with fan experience and more to do with frustration over the team’s lack of success. The Orioles have not enjoyed a winning season since 1997 and have failed to finish better than third in the AL East during that stretch.

“I think it’s definitely the eight straight losing seasons,” said Tony Pente, publisher of the popular Orioles Hangout Web site, who recalled when the appeal of Camden Yards could attract 35,000 fans on its own. “Baseball is a tough sell when you’re not winning. There are always going to be ardent fans. But for the casual fans, you sometimes can’t give the tickets away.”

The Orioles drew just 16,566 and 15,548 fans in two games last week against the contending Detroit Tigers, and the team drew less than 30,000 total fans for a two-game set against the Blue Jays on May 1 and May 2.

The weekend sweep of the Kansas City Royals drew an average of just more than 29,000 fans. This week’s series against the Red Sox is expected to be one of the highest-attended of the season. For three games against the Red Sox in April, the Orioles averaged 39,000 fans.

Kasten has seen fans come back quickly but knows that winning helps.

As president of the Atlanta Braves, he saw attendance at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium jump from 980,000 in 1990 to more than 2.1 million the following season as the Braves went from worst to first and won the National League. Nearly 3.9 million fans attended Braves games in 1993, when the team won the NL West with a team-record 104 wins, and the first four seasons of Turner Field attracted more than 3 million fans each.

But increasing attendance is a tough order when there’s so much competing for fans attention. Throughout the majors, teams are drawing an average of just less than 29,000 fans a game, virtually flat from the same period last year.

“There’s an entertainment glut, and there are more entertainment options available than ever before in every market,” said Dennis Howard, a professor at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “The amount of disposable income has not gone up in the last two years, in particular. It’s plateaued, and that’s money that would go toward entertainment spending. It’s economics 101.”

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